GHOST/LANDSCAPE BY KRISTINA MARIE DARLING
AND JOHN GALLAHER
BLAZEVOX, 2016; 102 PP
REVIEWED BY ANNE CHAMPION
On the back cover of Kristina Marie Darling and John Gallaher’s Ghost/Landscape, Allison Benis White says, “One measure of the potency of literature is that its strangeness forces the reader to change her world to incorporate it, or to leave her world and join the one the writer has created.” This perfectly encapsulates the experience of entering Darling and Gallaher’s prose poems.
I admit that the form of prose poetry often makes me expect narrative, and it’s the denial of that expectation that makes Ghost/Landscape a compelling, reader-centric experience. The collection begins on “Chapter Two,” trumping expectations by placing the reader on the sideline of a battle whose beginning or cause you can’t place, making the ensuing conflict as dizzying as a maze. The details render a domestic setting, but with apocalyptic imagery: “Now our train leaving the platform, another dead pigeon near the tracks” and “Not one painting on the walls, and not a single photograph in any of those boxes.” The absence of photos or art signal that there’s no past in tact in these poems, and the dead bird along the tracks gestures towards a decomposing future weighted down by terror.
Kristina Marie Darling’s new collection, Women and Ghosts, is billed as a book of essays; however, the book is an ambitious hybrid of lyric essay, literary criticism, poetry, and playwriting. Women and Ghosts is a stunning and spare account of the female characters in various Shakespearean plays partially written from the perspectives of the characters themselves—Ophelia, Cleopatra, Desdemona, and others. The other voices that make up the book include a critic, a playwright, actors, and a female speaker who seems to take on the persona of the contemporary poet herself. This contemporary speaker recounts a relationship where a man dominates her, and this story is multiplied back across all of Shakespeare’s female characters, which were of course in similar situations themselves. In other words—the chorus of female voices silencing, shouting, and stuffing this famous man’s words is impressive.
The book physically appears to be ghosted—most of the text is printed in a light grayscale that may be difficult for some to read. A few, fragile words rise to the surface of the page. Some phrases are crossed out, especially in the opening section, “Daylight Has Already Come” and the two later sections, “Essays on Production” and “Essays on Props.” Darling also keeps her favorite props close here in Women and Ghosts. Fans of her work from books like X Marks the Dress and Fortress will recognize the “good” silver, flowers, fine china, and lush John Singer Sargent-like fabrics, particularly described in women’s dresses, that dot this landscape.
Darling’s work owes a great deal to Jen Bervin's trailblazing book, Nets, a collection of erasure poems using the source text of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but Darling extends outward from this. Women and Ghosts shows us an author whose critical and creative sides meet at a rocky confluence. Aside from the critical sections, the book reads as part narrative and part performance. The duality exists most obviously in the “Women and Ghosts” section where Shakespearean scenes are summarized briefly and below, a different story is told in the footnotes. For example, the summary of Othello’s final scene simply reads, “Othello ends when Desdemona is smothered and left for dead.” However, in the footnote, the speaker wonders, “If I can act like a girl who just fell in love. Maybe then I will be able to speak” (29). This quote could be looked at as a summary of the summary. It’s conceivable that Desdemona would have this thought as her husband smothered her. It seems more likely, however, that the poet/speaker is channeling Desdemona in her own contemporary life.